Debating the Resurrection – is it important?
So that’s Easter. You know, the time of year when we all jump in cars for a long weekend away, enjoying the rain and high winds, before coming back to a week of sunshine. You know, the time of year when the Good Friday movie on television is invariably something like Deep Throat or – as it was this year – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
In the midst of the stormy weather and the Bacchanalian dancing on the cross of Christ by hostile TV programming mavens, hundreds of thousands of people nevertheless turn out to Easter services nationwide where they would have also heard a wide range of opinions on the Resurrection of Christ.
If you’d gone to the liberal New Age Buddhist hang-out centre formerly known as St Matthew-in-the-City Anglican “church” in Auckland, you’d have heard a sermon telling you Easter has nothing to do with whether Jesus Christ was resurrected – because he probably wasn’t – it was all about the circle of life, and rebirth and other symbolic New Age concepts.
In other words, a sermon based entirely around the Easter Egg. Across town, at a genuine Christian church, you’d be more likely to hear a sermon on the real significance of the crucifixion and resurrection. In other words, a sermon based on hot cross buns.
Out of all that, the ordinary punter is expected – once a year, anyway – to try and make some sense out of Christian doctrine when it seems even the churches don’t know what they stand for or what they believe. Is the actual resurrection important? Yes it is, and here’s why.
Without the real death of Christ on the cross, and a real, bodily resurrection out of the tomb, there is no Christianity. Sure, Jesus was a wise man and a great teacher, but if he’s ultimately still in the grave then he cannot have been God and cannot have been telling the truth in that regard. He’s just another wild-eyed wannabe and whether you follow his principles of living or not is entirely up to how you feel.
But, if Christ was indeed resurrected such a feat would prove his claim to be God, to be someone far more powerful than mere mortal humans. In short, if Jesus really was resurrected then everything else he said must be true, because he is the only person in all human history to have not only claimed to be God, but given evidence to prove his claim and done so in front of witnesses.
Buddha, Muhammed, Confucius? They’re all still dead and buried. Of all the great religious leaders, only Jesus Christ actually claimed to be God the Creator and performed miracles to prove it.
Buddha said there were many paths to Nirvana, but offered no evidence of his authority to make the statement. Hinduism bases its religion on ancient legends, not demonstrable historical figures whose existence we can prove. Moreover, Hinduism is like a throwback to the ancient Greek and Roman gods. Hinduism believes in different classes of humans, that some people are untouchable just because of the social class they’re born into. Does that sound like a religion founded by the Creator of the Universe?
Muhammed claims God can only be attained through his teachings, but he never performed the miracles that Christ did to show his divine authority.
So we’re left with a resurrected Jesus Christ saying “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but through me”.
So it all hinges on the resurrection. If it happened, then his comment immediately above affects every living human on this planet, regardless of what religion they think they follow. If the resurrection really happened, then Jesus’ call to the disciples to preach that fact to all nations is not just Christianity seeking “equal time” alongside other religious beliefs; it is Christianity saying every other belief system out there is wrong, and if you choose to follow them you’ll be committing spiritual suicide.
Did the resurrection happen?
The evidence clearly suggests it did. Firstly, we are struck with the fact of an empty tomb. It is abundantly clear both from the Gospel accounts and from Jewish writings that Jesus’ body was missing. The Jews accused the Christians of stealing it. So fact one: the tomb
Then there’s the role of women. In the Gospel accounts, women were the first to witness the empty tomb, and witness the risen, resurrected Jesus. So what? Well it may not seem a big deal in our modern world where men and women both get to vote, but in Middle Eastern countries of the time, as today, women were second-class citizens whose testimony was so worthless they couldn’t even be witnesses in court.
If the Gospel accounts were fiction, the authors would definitely have made men the first witnesses, to lend credibility to the accounts. They would not in a million years have dreamed of making women the first witnesses unless, of course, that’s what really happened and they regarded the facts as more important than the spin.
Fact two: with women being first to witness the risen Christ, this indicates the story is more likely to be factual because it is counter-cultural – it runs against what people of the day would have expected, yet tells the story straight despite the risk of alienating potential converts.
Which then brings us to the other witnesses. A resurrected Jesus Christ appeared to the women and the 11 surviving disciples and around 500 others during the six weeks after his death on the cross. Search the annals of Sigmund Freud’s cases, or search every library of every psychology department at every university in the world, and you will never find one case of a hallucination appearing to hundreds of people at different times, or 11 people in a room all reporting that a hallucination sat down and ate fish with them, or that they could touch the hallucination. So the only other possible option here is that all the witnesses were simply liars who constructed a fictional story to help sell their message.
Fact three, then: the resurrection appearances to hundreds of people were not hallucinations, and must either be true or the deliberate false creation of the early Christians.
So could the resurrection appearances have been deliberate lies to sell the Christian message? Let’s examine that for a moment. Such deceit stands in direct opposition to everything Jesus Christ stood for, and everything preached in the Gospels. In other words, if you truly believed Jesus was the way and the truth, how was inventing the mother of all fairy stories going to reflect that “truth”?
Secondly, after the crucifixion, the record shows the disciples were crushed men. They’d been expecting to see the man they followed as God be triumphant at the cross, perhaps smiting all the Roman soldiers and proving to all that he was God come to deliver justice and vengeance against those who had dared to harm him. Instead, whipped and scourged to within an inch of his life, they’d watched from the sidelines as the Romans taunted Jesus on the cross before he drifted away suddenly crying out that even God had forsaken him. Maybe, thought the disciples, he really was only a man after all. So their own visions and dreams of the Messiah died on the cross with Christ, and when the women first talked about a risen Jesus they thought the women were insane. It just wasn’t computing in their heads.
Let’s assume, for the sake of this, that Jesus only fainted on the cross and woke up in the tomb, still alive. A Roman crucifixion was not a smack on the hand with a wooden spoon. It was a bloody and brutal affair where death was guaranteed. On the remote offchance that Jesus was only a human who survived the cross, are we to believe that – after rolling away the two-tonne boulder – a half-dead Jesus, blood-encrusted, gaping nail wounds in hands and feet and a spear gash in his heart, crawled into the disciples’ meeting room triumphantly muttering, “see, I’ve beaten death, I’m Lord and master of the Universe”? Would such a spectacle have inspired the disciples, or would they assume, like you and I, that he must simply have survived and not died at all? Hardly a triumph over death.
But the Gospel accounts speak of a radiant resurrected Jesus. An inspiring figure. Could the disciples have invented the resurrection accounts? Obviously they could have, but it is extremely unlikely. First and foremost, virtually all the disciples were later executed by Rome for continuing to claim that Christ really was God and really had been resurrected. Roman documents in British and European museums show the Roman emperors gave instructions that Christians were to be shown mercy if they publicly renounced their faith, and executed if they did not.
It is highly significant that the disciples were fed to lions; dipped in tar and set alight as garden lanterns; and put to death by crucifixion because they refused to renounce their claims. It is one thing to die for something you believe to be true, but we’re not arguing here over whether the disciples “believed” it – critics say the disciples knowingly made the story up.
Question. Would you volunteer to be torn apart by starving lions to defend a story you’d made up, when you could go free just by admitting to the con? Why would the disciples die such horrible deaths for something they knew was fake? It doesn’t make sense. The only rational explanation for it is that the disciples genuinely believed they’d seen the resurrected Christ (which, for reasons covered above, must have been the genuine Jesus), and that fact gave them enough faith to endure a few moments of pain from lions, rather than give up an eternity in heaven.
And that, folks, is the ultimate power of the resurrection. It is Christianity saying to the world, in the words of a recent song: No matter what they tell you / No matter what they do / No matter what they teach you / What you believe is true.
A liberal, symbolic, Easter Egg, counterfeit construction of the resurrection may be non-threatening to followers of other religions, but it will never set them free like the Truth. If I was on a road to Hell, I’d want to be told. Wouldn’t you?
Ian Wishart is the #1 bestselling author of the critically-acclaimed book, The Divinity Code, which examines the evidence for and against the existence of God and Jesus Christ